Monthly Archives: January 2010

Where I Disagree with Morozov vs Shirky on Digital Activism

Prospect Magazine just published the final back-and-forth between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky on digital activism. The debate followed Evgeny’s cover story in Prospect published last November, which I responded to (and disagreed with) at length here: Why Dictators Love the Web or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Say So What?! And here: Digital Activism and the Puffy Clouds of Anecdote Heaven.

I enjoyed reading the final exchange between Morozov and Shirky. Here’s where I agree and disagree with both authors.

Agree with Morozov

  • Growing Internet censorship in Iran is a logical reaction from a “rational-thinking” government concerned with possible revolution.
  • Only focusing on who controls communication networks may not be terribly helpful since Iran has other ways to control the internet. “One unfortunate consequence of limiting our analysis of internet control to censorship only is that it presents all authoritarian governments as technophobic and unable to capitalise on new technologies,” which is hardly the case.

Disagree with Morozov

  • Protests are not necessarily rare in repressive states. According to a study in 2006, “group protests in China have risen at a rate of at least 17% a year.” In 2005, there were an estimated 241 group protests per day. In Pakistan, local Field Monitors with Swisspeace coded 54 individual protests during 2007. Compare this with Reuters coverage of Pakistan, which only reported 7 protests that same year. If it’s not in the news does not mean it’s not happening.
  • The regime in Tehran may very well have the ability to turn off mobile phone coverage in public places where protests are organized but remember those things called land line telephones? Iran has 24.8 million of those (2008 est.) and is ranked 12th (above South Korea and Canada) in number of land line phones (ref). And besides, we’ve clearly seen that mobile phones are increasingly used for more than just communication. The tragic video footage of Neda (along with hundreds of other pictures) were all captured on mobile phones.
  • The fact that the Iranian regime has become more authoritarian following the post-elections  protests does not automatically imply the regime has become stronger. As I have written elsewhere, citing Brafman and Beckstrom’s The Starfish and the Spider: “when attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.” A more centralized and paranoid regime, however, doesn’t mean a more powerful regime. Greater repression is a typical reaction by a threatened regime during a revolution and often before a change of power.
  • The increased repression can also backfire. As mentioned in this previous blog post, “Backfire occurs when an attack creates more support for or attention to what/who is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.” For further research on this issue, I recommend reading this piece on “Repression, Backfire and the Theory of Transformative Events,” by David Hess and Brian Martin.
  • One should also take into consideration the organizational topology of resistance movements. Brafman and Beckstrom argue that “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more decentralized.” This may make it more difficult for the regime to identify and crack down on the resistance movement in Iran.
  • I don’t think Burma serves as a valid comparison with Iran. In addition, the fact that there were no major democratic changes in Burma following the Saffron revolution in 2007 hardly means that the situation has been static since. I recently spoke with two colleagues who were in Burma a few months ago and was taken aback by some of the changes they observed.
  • Morozov asks what is to be gained if the ability to organize protests is matched or even overpowered by the ability to provoke, identify and arrest the protesters and possible future dissidents? A good question but one that seems to assumes a static and linear state of affairs. As I have argued elsewhere, tactical innovation, organizational learning and technological change means that this is unlikely.

Agree with Shirky

  • Just like the Protestant Reformation was shaped by the printing press, the Iranian protests were and is being shaped by social media, rather than simply Twitter. Perhaps “the real revolution was the use of mobile phones, which allowed the original protesters to broadcast their actions to other citizens and to the wider world with remarkable speed and immediacy.”
  • I’m including the following paragraphs in full as they are relevant to my dissertation research. For me the key words here are “synchronized public.”

“The basic hypothesis is an updated version of that outlined by Jürgen Habermas in his 1962 publication, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: an Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. A group of people, so Habermas’s theory goes, who take on the tools of open expression becomes a public, and the presence of a synchronised public increasingly constrains undemocratic rulers while expanding the rights of that public (the monarchies of Europe, in Habermas’s telling, become authoritarian governments within the contemporary scenario).

Put another way, even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens. As Evgeny notes, however, that hypothesis might be wrong. Or, if it is right, the ways in which it is right might be minor, or rare, or take decades to unfold.

  • Iran is unlikely to become a permanent Burma since “the kind of information shutdown required to keep all forms of public assembly from boiling over will be beyond the authorities in Iran.”

Disagree with Shirky

  • On the Habermas reference to the “synchronized public”, Shirky overlooks the fact that a centralized, command-and-control organization is likely to have the upper hand on synchronization. He also forgets that repressive regimes do not face the same collective action problem that resistance movements face (c.f. information cascades). Granted, the “public” may be quicker in adapting to relatively rapid and small-albeit-important changes in the political environment but this needs to be tested in more depth.
  • Shirky agrees with Evgeny regarding the possibility that Iran may move towards the Burmese model of steady control. Put this way, I also agree with the possibility that the sun may not rise tomorrow. Neither Shirky, Morozov or myself are Iran specialists or have any inside information on the internal politics of the country. So best not to rely on any of us for expert political commentary on Iranian politics.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Diane Coyle Responds to Criticisms of UN/Vodafore Report

Guest Blogger: Diane Coyle, lead author of UN/Vodafone Report

The tone of some comments about our report has surprised and disappointed me. It should go without saying that a report-as opposed to a catalog-could never include all the technologies and applications available in this exciting field now.

We selected examples that illustrated relevant aspects of the use of communications and information in the context of an emergency or conflict. The selection methodology was that they should be good illustrations of innovative uses, covering a reasonable spread of technologies, users and countries. In addition, we played to our own strengths in terms of the technologies and approaches we know well, meaning that we understood thoroughly the contribution they can make.

What’s more, this is not an academic report, which some of the criticisms ignored. It is meant to be accessible to a general audience, especially practitioners and policy makers. Why on earth would we include a literature review?

Some comments simply seemed to have missed the point, and no doubt I could have spelled some things out more clearly. For example, the point made in the document about Cyclone Nargis is precisely that even in contexts which hold no promise for humanitarian agencies to introduce new information-rich technologies, very simple low-tech information can still help build community resilience.

Having said that, I am really grateful for comments which pointed out a few factual errors and infelicities, and I hope we can correct them soon. I’m confident that the report makes an important contribution in highlighting the potential for the latest technologies in this field, and the obstacles to realization of that potential.

Responding to Feedback on UN Foundation/Vodafone Report

Update: I’m in conversation with the UN/Vodafone Foundation about adding a paragraph on case selection, a case study on Sahana and correcting the error on UNOSAT.

The UN/Vodafone Foundation recently published a new Report on New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts. This blog post responds to feedback on this report. Please note that I do so as second-author. My respected colleague Diane Coyle is the report’s lead author and editor so she may have other thoughts on the feedback. Naturally, I will only address the feedback that relates to my input.

  • Intended audience: The report was written for a general (non-technical/expert) audience as a way to showcase technology applications in the humanitarian space.
  • Case selection: The case studies were selected in consultation with the UN/Vodafone Foundation throughout the research period. These consultations included the authors of the report (Diane and myself) and three members of the UN/Vodafone Foundation who served as editors. Some of the case studies were requested by the Foundation. For the other case studies, we strove to highlight some of the most recent initiatives in consultation with the UN/Vodafone Foundation. Of the 19 case studies selected, 13 didn’t exist some 2 years ago. The others comprise major global initiatives, fit well together as examples for a general audience, or were requested case studies. Clearly, the limited space did not allow us include everyone’s favorite project.
  • Length of report: We originally had some 80-or-so draft pages between us and had to reduce the content to about 60 pages. This meant having to decide what to keep and what to put aside. Some of the rewrite was also done to make the report less technical and more widely understandable. This helped to save on space.
  • UNOSAT and Sri Lanka: The reference does not intend to endorse or discount the interpretation of the imagery by the international community. The reference is based on in-person consultations with several well-placed experts. That said, I would agree that some rephrasing is in order this paragraph needs to be reworked.

On a personal note, I have found the tone of some criticisms rather disappointing and old school. There are several ways to give feedback: one is constructive, another is destructive. The former provides incentives to improve and continue an open collaborative conversation as a community. The latter defeats the incentive for growth and leads to a more self-centered community.

Some of the criticisms of this report have been destructive. Why is it that some of us can’t get our points across with more composure? Does bitterness make us feel more important? I expected a lot more from some of my (older, wiser) colleagues. But I haven’t always been good on providing constructive feedback either, so thanks to my “new fan club” I’ve got another New Year’s resolution for 2010: I will do my best to give constructive, supportive feedback.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Crisis Mapping Uganda: Combining Narratives and GIS to Study Genocide

This new peer-reviewed paper in The Professional Geographer is worth reading, especially if you’re new to crisis mapping. Authors Marguerite Madden and Amy Ross combine qualitative data of personal narratives with GIS technologies to “explore the potential for critical cartography in the study of mass atrocity.”

The authors use Northern Uganda, where millions have been affected by physical violence, as a case study. Their research yields the following conclusions:

  • Satellite images confirm the disruptive impact of forced relocation on economic activity, which resulted in greater levels of mortality than overt violence of LRA attacks.
  • Points, lines, and polygons delineated in Google Earth can be uploaded in ArcGIS to analyze the spatial patterns of huts and changes in IDP camps over time.
  • GIS data appear to have potential in documenting crimes that fall within the category of crimes against humanity.
  • Qualitative data may fail to demonstrate the extent and systematic nature of violence. GIS techniques may be able to provide the widespread and systematic criteria necessary for a conviction on crimes against humanity when individual life experiences are too difficult to document in sufficient numbers.
  • GIScience technologies appear to have less value in determining the crime of genocide. To reach a legal finding of genocide, the intent of the perpetrators must be established. GIS technologies alone, it seems, fail to provide solutions to this difficulty.

Marguerite and Amy cite the following research, which may be of interest to those looking for further reading in this area:

Kwan, M., and G. Ding. 2008. Geo-narrative: Extending geographic information systems for narrative
analysis in qualitative and mixed-method research. The Professional Geographer 60 (4): 443–65.

I wonder whether Marguerite and Amy have thought about exploring a collaboration with the EC’s Joint Research Center (JRC). The latter has developed automated change-detection methods for refugee/IDP camps, and if I remember correctly, they are looking for ways to validate their analysis using ground truthing.

Many thanks to my colleague Andrew Linke of Colorado University for sharing this paper with me.

Patrick Philippe Meier